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Exocentric compounds

Exocentric compounds are compounds in which either the morphosyntactic properties or the semantic category of the whole word do not correlate with one of its constituents. For instance, a dikbuik fat-belly fat person is not a type of belly, but a person with a fat belly.

Verbal compounds like klappertanden to tooth-rattle to shiver are formally exocentric because there is no verbal head tanden from which the verbal category of the compound can be derived: the form of this compound is [VN]V with a noun on the right. The left-hand constituent is not the head either, as the verbal inflection appears on the rightmost constituent, as shown by the past tense singular form klappertandde klapper-tand-de. Semantically, one might consider the verbal constituent as the head, as klappertanden might be interpreted as a subtype of klapperento rattle. Hence, there is a mismatch between semantic headedness and morpho-syntactic headedness.

There are two subtypes of semantically exocentric compounds. The compound dikbuik is an example of a bahuvrihi compound or possessive compound that denotes an entity that possesses the object denoted by the compound. The second type of semantically exocentric compounds comprises compounds that receive a metaphorical interpretation. For instance, geldwolf money wolf money-grabber denotes persons greedy for money. Metaphorical interpretations also play a role in proefkonijn test-rabbit guinea pig and feestvarken party-pig birthday boy/girl.


Bahuvrihi compounds such as bleekgezicht pale-face are nominal compounds that denote entities that possess what is expressed by the compound. The term comes from Sanskrit grammar: in Sanskrit, the compound word bahuvrīhi means 'much rice' and is interpreted as a possessive compound with the meaning  'having much rice'. These compounds often have a body part as head noun, and are used mainly pejoratively: roodhuid red-skinbierbuik beer-belly person with beer-belly This type of compound is quite popular for naming animals, for instance roodborstje red-breast-DIM robin.

One may consider these compounds as exocentric, as the formal head of these compounds does not function as semantic head. However, these compounds are endocentric in that their literal interpretation is part of the interpretation of the whole compound. Their special semantic properties may be assumed to derive from the semantic mechanism of metonymy.

For some words, this metonymic interpretation may lead to a difference in gender between the compound and the rightward constituent. For instance, the compound spleetoog slit-eye person with an Asiatic face has common gender, whereas its formal head oog is neuter: compare het oog vs. de spleetoog. This shows that the metonymic semantics may overrule the assignment of gender to compounds by the head noun. By contrast, in compounds such as proefkonijn guinea pig and feestvarken birthday boy/girl, the neuter gender of the head noun is preserved, even though these compounds denote human beings. This shows that these compounds are still endocentric from a formal point of view.

The second type of semantically exocentric compounds is due to metaphorical meaning extensions. Consider the following examples:

Example 1

a. apekop
b. hondelul
c. klootzak
scrotum/ bastard

Names for body parts, including those of animal bodies, are often used pejoratively. In the complex words above, they stand metaphorically for negative qualities of the addressee.